Isle of Dogs
- Pit Bull by Scott Ely
Penguin, 218 pp, £4.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 14 012033 5
This small-brained animal, primed to hate, straining at the end of a short leash, is universally recognised as bad news. And the dog, his yellow-eyed, short-eared familiar, the killing machine, is not much better. The whole relationship is a mistake, a dangerous misconception, a perversion of actual needs. The dog as protector becomes the very thing that must be protected against: squat embodiment of threat. It is, of course, a truism that beast and man come to resemble each other, a couple wearied by compromise, tissue mapped by shared embraces. But even this specimen of folk wisdom is reinforced by repeated sightings. Something does happen. Jolts of electrified tension pass along the chain; defensive warnings are exchanged, atavistic fears. The man believes he is tethered to the heraldic expression of his own courage made into flesh. He is pulled forward by an intelligent muscle, a growling machismo. His phallic extension has achieved independence, and swaggers beside him: the dog is a prick with teeth. What the beast believes, I do not pretend to know. I leave that to Jack London.
My wife teaches in a borderland school. The place is invisible to those who cannot wait to escape from Hackney, who rush to their doom in a perpetual, honking stream, over the Lea and away into the comparative safety of Leyton, Whipps Cross and Epping Forest. The mulch zones in which inner city crimes are finally buried. They do things differently there. These are places people have chosen to escape towards. The school could be anywhere, but it happens to be in this lost settlement, hiding in the shadow of the Hackney Hospital, with its demented towers and abandoned wings. This is where you finish when the mind snaps beyond all hope of healing. All the unsolved problems have rolled down the hill and stuck, because they can go no further. The school yard is surrounded by a storm-fence to keep out the less determined and more visible spectres of rage. In the mornings – as the children straggle in, with parents, sisters, grandparents, keepers, or alone – the fence begins, unemphatically, to resemble the OK Corral. Pit bulls, denied access to the yard itself, are tied to hitching-poles. They stand, stock-still, gleaming bronze in the pale sun, flanks heaving, staring with eyes of inner anguish at these potential feeding-grounds. The dogs confer status even at the bottom of the heap. And this is where status is most needed. There is not much else. The pit bull is twinned in desirability with the possession of a satellite disk, if not the rancid channel itself. These hideous shields, each one representing a dog’s head, creep like malign barnacles over barracks of guttered experiments in public housing. Nobody has yet marketed a mock-Georgian satellite disk, decently rusticated, with pseudo coat-of-arms.
The dog and the disk: they hang out together like a pub sign. The one announces the presence of the other. The dog protects the disk, and also basks in its addictive glow. The disk, if activated, feeds liquid Sun, sick light; dopamine substitutes induce a paranoid trancestate, in which the only possible reaction to such selective inertia is a howl of suppressed rage, fire images of violation and urban destruction, apocalyptic seizures. We begin to ‘see’ dogs everywhere. And these dogs we have called into being begin to see with our eyes. But the hubristic expense of keeping such toys is crippling. Midnight flits are the norm. Puzzled children move school repeatedly, as dog and television are loaded onto a symbolic handcart, here masquerading as a respectable motor, paid off to the height of the hubcaps.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.